ANTIQUITY. This wasn’t Versailles, the Duc de Berry, or King Arthur, but even earlier. It was even before Japan.
APHORISMS. An assertion about the goodness / badness / appropriateness of something. How something should look or behave.
APHORISTIC LISTS. Usually after an aphorism. The items appear in the continuous present. Concerning seasonal, ritual, routine timeless occurrences. Not connected with individual personalities.
ARISTOCRACY. Her subject matter is exclusively court life, reinforced by unsympathetic glances toward the few common people she deigns to mention. Morris:
“The city of the world of the shining prince was a rectangle about three and a half miles from north to south, and two and a half miles from east to west. … Directly in the north centre of the city was an area of some three hundred acres known as the Nine-Fold Enclosure.” (World of the Shining Prince)
Lives devoid of solitude and yet completely confined. Spartan furnishings, monotony, ritual, obedience to punctilious and arbitrary formality. ….
It’s a monastery of aestheticism. Their poems even sound like the Desert Fathers.
AUSTERITY. The sacrifice, the discipline, the austerity which irradiates the book, which determines its form. Recasting oneself into a figure, a pattern, a character. For a book almost wholly concerned with celebrating the sensibility of its author, it is based on a formidably ascetic renunciation of the self. Think of all the personal matters rigorously excluded.
Anything that might suggest substantial reality outside of the character of Shonagon’s milieu is omitted. All is convention. The encounters with religion, with common people, are presented as bizarre, extraordinary. Perhaps the author really had such narrow confines, and the effect of an insubstantial figure in a pastoral is unintentional, a misreading. Shonagon was not a secret republican, harboring universal philanthropic sentiments. Quite the contrary. But certainly she was aware of more than the woman she presents herself was. Otherwise she could not have presented such a focused and circumstantial image. I suspect she presented the character bearing her name as more credulous, frivolous, conventional than she must have been. What was Proust’s remark about the exacting intellectual effort required to produce an account of a frivolous afternoon?
“[T]o give a consummate impression of frivolity in a book, or in a tale which is not dissimilar, requires a touch of seriousness which a purely frivolous person would be incapable of.” (Proust on Mme de V’s memoirs)
Or perhaps it was just a consequence of the contemporary status of women, convention requiring women to hide their learning? Or is my sense of her impersonality and frivolity merely a misunderstanding?
Typical that the thing I feel most strongly from Shonagon is a quality you could reasonably argue is completely absent from her book. But I have never gotten over the glamour of sainthood, in that completely stripped-down Protestant form, accenting doubt and sorrow and acquiescence over heroics, miracles, lesser fairy tales of triumph and escape. Perhaps I’m giving her credit for breadth and perspective and doubts she simply didn’t have. But I don’t know how you can observe without being outside the thing, even just a bit. Superior to it? That’s just the sort of pride Shonagon avoided. Spiritual pride.
And no soul searching, no torment, almost no introspection. Or, rather, she presents herself as a character incapable of introspection. Kill the thinker and become an artist. (Gide)
AUTOCRITIQUE. Autopsy of my own response.
“AWARE. A word frequently used in The Tale of Genji and other classical literature. Among its wide range of meanings are ‘pathetic,’ ‘moving,’ ‘beautiful.’ The phrase mono no aware corresponds to lacrimae rerum, the pity of things, which is often taken to be the underlying theme of Murasaki’s novel.” (World of the Shining Prince)
BEGINNING. On such and such a morning, in a certain courtyard, a woman, assisted by serving men, heaped snow up into a tall pile. … Which would seem the apotheosis, the zenith of idleness to report on today, a thousand years later. Self-conscious of our ignorance, we re-read the text with the aid of the translators and editors and commentators. But it is no use: there is nothing in the retelling that is like a certain meal shared by 13 men a thousand years earlier than that. It is a story of something that happened, as it happened, with no additional significatory surplus. The snow mountain is gone, the ladies are gone, the courtyard is gone, their whole world is gone.
BREVITY. The longest episode is 15 pages long. Most are much less: a few paragraphs, a list, a line.
CARICATURE. Theophrastus, Jean de la Bruyère.
CEREMONIES. Shonagon’s descriptions of ceremonies are my least favorite episodes. She fails, because she felt they were sufficiently interesting in themselves. I can’t bear most of our own rituals … so how can I be expected to tolerate those of another culture?
COMBINATIONS OF THINGS WHICH STARTLE AND MOVE.
--“Things That Cannot Be Compared”
--“Adorable Things” “Duck eggs, an urn containing the relics of some holy person. Wind pink.”
--“Enviable People” “People who can afford their own Chapel of Meditation and pray there in the evening and at dawn. When one’s opponent has a lucky throw of dice in backgammon, he is most enviable. A saint who has really given up all thoughts of the world.”
DE SÉVIGNÉ. Imagine a dialogue of the dead, in the style of Lucan, Fonatelle, Leopardi. The shade of Madame de Sévigné encounters the shade of Sei Shonagon. What would happen? Most likely nothing, because part of the charm of both is their complete absorption, complete satisfaction with worlds we recognize as restricted milieu governed by internally contradictory, arbitrary rules. Their identification with this milieu seems spontaneous and uncomplicated in a way unobtainable to us, so part of the pleasure is envy. What would their conversation be? One doesn’t want to imagine either acknowledging anything of the other’s world.
What do they have in common?
-Gossip, impressions, ephemera as picturesque amusement.
--A reputation for wit.
--Status as classics.
--Reportage rather than fiction.
--Addressed to world at large despite pretense of privacy.
--17th c. France vs. 12th. c. Japan.
--Posthumous edition of letters vs. artful diary.
--Personal and political (even military) aspects vs. purely domestic aspect of court.
--Wandering vs. stationary.
--Dominating theme of maternal love vs. aestheticism.
--Curiosity & amusement with commons vs. ignorance and disgust.
--Ailments, medicines, diagnoses vs. fatalist reserve.
“The Heian period has two contrasting aspects that must be kept in mind if we are to understand the world of the shining prince. On one side is the love of colour and grandeur, of pomp and circumstance, summed up in the word ‘eiga.’ … Never far removed from this delight in the aesthetic joys of the world is the somber, negative aspect of the period, …. ’Eiga.’ Glory, pomp, splendor. A word frequently used to describe the lives of Fujiwara leaders like Michinaga and the glittering fictional heroes like Prince Genji.” (World of the Shining Prince)
Like dios, brilliant.
ENTERTAINMENT. I decided to put Stein on hold for a while to catch my breath. What then am I going to read? Hyperion came to mind. But that’s not a project. Well what about finishing Being and Time? I looked into it. This morning I reviewed my notes from two years ago, and then looked back into the text. I can’t read it, I won’t even try. My desire to master it derives not from any sympathy or interest, but rather out of a sense of its importance to other people. His formulations of his ambition, of the call for a more meditative method are appealing, but not the results. I’m not interested in the applications of his terminology, even though they give rise to occasionally striking characterizations. I can read about death in some more congenial book. Since the mid-1980s I have read and re-read Shonagon when I can’t read anything else, when I have to escape, while traveling, when the world is unbearable.
--“… ‘Even if we were as intimate as people think, that would be nothing to be ashamed of. Really you could let me see your face’
--“One day it was reported that there was a demon in the main room.”
--“’Oh, Goddess of Mercy of Shirayama, I prayed frenziedly, ‘do not let our mountain melt away!’”)
--“It was during the abstinence of the fifth month”
--“As they worked, they sang such a strange song that we all burst out laughing and completely forgot about writing our hototogisu poems.”
--“‘He was afraid that if people saw him accompanying me in the same under-robe that he had worn when he was with the Empress Dowager there might be some criticism. So he ordered his women to sew a new under-robe, and that is shy we were so late. What a taste he has for elegance!’”
--“It is delightful also when a man on horseback recites poetry at dawn.”
GIDE. Starting at 20, looking over Paris from his house in rue Monsieur-le-Prince. The unmitigated glamour of the place, the time. Relocating to North Africa changes nothing:
“There was no question of taking my temperature, but from some of the symptoms I can remember, I feel convinced I was feverish morning and evening. I had had a good piano sent me from Algiers, but the running up of the smallest scale put me out of breath. … At Mustapha, which might otherwise have suited me, the hotels were too luxurious. I thought I might fare better at Blidah. I was reading at that time, I remember, Fichte’s Science of Knowledge, without any pleasure but that of my own application.”
Of Gide’s endless striving towards seriousness, all that remains is the attenuated squeak of his voice. All that worrying about significance, and yet he omits almost everything of enduring interest of his time and place. Where is the School of Paris? the modernist composers? Apollinaire? Cocteau, the Russian Ballet and Perse come up, but he either disapproves or has nothing to say. His only hits are Valéry and Proust.
ILLUSTRATIONS. A story beginning “Once.” Usually following aphoristic list items. Involving specific individuals in a past, historical moment.
INTERMEDIARIES. Also, the question of reading through intermediaries--translation, commentaries. It is the norm. But there are these extreme cases--when the culture, the time, the language are utterly foreign. What value, what status are any of my responses?
What writer do I think I know? With whom is the imposition of intermediaries the least? What criteria?
--Clarity. Austen, Diderot, Dickens, Shaw, Colette--authors whose works are self-explanatory. But are they?
--Imaginative sympathy. Dickinson, Stevens--someone I feel temperamentally akin to. But what’s that?
--Study. Pound, Proust, Zukovsky. But what’s gained from scholarship? How little of it matters to the reading.
Shonagon’s life is as exotic as a character from the Old Testament.
Nevertheless, there are things worth knowing:
1. The sounds of Shonagon’s actual words. Their cadence and pattern.
2. The variant texts, the possibility of things being typos, or changes made by another hand, or by accident, or by contingencies no longer obtaining.
3. That the scene, time, diction, action may refer to a world I know nothing about, or have mistaken impressions of. Or that there are meanings in the action that have a meaning within the culture of the original audience that elude me because they aren’t commented on, but presented.
LISTS. Verbless notations. Snapshots. Presented together as being of one category.
MEANDERING NARRATIVES. Her way of executing a story beginning “When.” She begins with one issue then drops it for another, and another, and so on until you quickly become involved in some story quite different from what you expected starting out. What you think the point is keeps shifting, never settles. It is not cheeky, as with Sterne’s digressions, but documentation of an attitude towards the world that is very desperate and very familiar.
One episode starts as a description of the Empress, then focuses on Narimasa: the inadequacies of his home. Then Narimasa is ridiculed for his boorishness as a host, affectation, and even ignorance of the language. Then Narimasa is revealed as a outspoken advocate of Shonagon. And it ends with Shonagon’s admiration of the Empress’s amusement.
Or another which begins with the scary screen painting of Shonagonryo Palace and ends with the Empress’s anecdote about the Lady of Senyo Palace. I suppose this is not anything too unique, but it accomplishes a panoramic tour of the whole court in 1600 words.
Other stories which proceed unexpectedly:
--“When the Empress moved …”
--“In the first month when I go to a temple …”
--“A certain lieutenant …”
MINE. Might be a good idea to re-read Pillow Book before Peter Greenaway’s movie comes out and it suddenly becomes a topic of conversation. But will it happen? How popular can she be? On the one hand, she could become another Calvino. On the other, her pleasures are so arcane, and unraveling them requires studying footnotes and background material.
MODESTY. She notes things that strike her as pleasant or unpleasant and tells meandering stories.
MORRIS. Discuss Morris. He, after all, wrote the text--and made the selection--that I’m reading.
MURASAKI. I finished Seidensticher’s first dozen chapters of Genji, and could somebody tell me what this is about? It seems to be made up of nothing but the gallant dalliances of the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past, with all of Proust’s analysis, description and commentary left out--all the head-spinning cynicism, narcissism, frivolity and heartlessness of Marcel duplicated in Genji, but without the significant frame. No knower of many cities or city builder here. Don Giovanni? Something Mozartian, at any rate. Once I felt differently twenty years ago I fell in love with these lines: “He dressed and went out onto the balcony. A blind in the western wing was hastily raised. There seemed to be people behind who were looking at him. They could only see him indistinctly across the top of a partition in the verandah. Among them was one, perhaps, whose heart beat wildly as she looked …?”
--“A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.” (Hateful Things)
--“People who live together and still manage to behave with reserve towards each other.” (Rare Things)
--“A man of no importance reprimanding a servant” (Things that have lost their power)
--“In fact, I must feel free to include anything, even tongs used for the parting-fires.” (Things without merit)
OPENNESS. Her composition argues no system; the original arrangement isn’t even known. The book could be 10 times longer or 10 times shorter without any change to the whole. The effect of a haphazardly assembled document. But you don’t achieve a Pillow Book without severe intellectual effort, and of that effort you see nothing.
OUTLINE. Outline for a novel or a description of an event with all the details removed?
PLEASURES. To play with the contents of life. To be superior to ones own tragedy. Petronious, Sterne.
For me, there is pathos in the commemoration of pleasure. It’s not all that common in literature. It’s not even attempted. For me it is something heroic and an act of supreme intellectual rectitude. To remember happiness without slighting its value or dismissing it as an illusion. Or vulgarizing it. No wonder people sing pop songs to themselves which, feeble pastiches that they usually are, at least proclaim solidarity with exuberance.
--What is Shonagon’s procedure?
--Which are my favorite episodes?
--What’s original and what’s conventional? Art or cliché? Is a cliché a cliché when you don’t know it?
--The impertinence. Irrelevance. What is importance in literature?
SAINT-SIMON’S MEMOIRS. Curiosities and lots of improper acts: the Duchess de Bourgogne taking an enema in the King’s presence. Mme de Saint-Héress who was scalded in the Seine. The Princesse d’Harcourt’s friends pelting her with snowballs in her bed. The formality prompted a lot of bathroom anxiety, such as the Duchesse de Cherreuse’s in the King’s carriage. … The lack of privacy in the …. The King’s indifference/impatience with a miscarriage. The account of Louis XIV’s insulation from the real consequences of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The death of Monseigneur. The interview with Louis. And, best of all, the controversy Saint-Simon invents over the tapestry depicting men in hats.
In short, here’s the highest moment of aristocracy, the pinnacle towards which all subsequent European elites aspire, and … they were a nasty, dimwitted, unattractive crew no one would have tolerated voluntarily a second.
SATIRE. The Heinians had no Molière. Or, on the contrary, they had nothing but Molères.
SETTINGS. Narrative setting for one of her poems. What is the Provençal term?
--“On the fifth of the fifth month I prefer a cloudy sky.”
--“In fact, I detest anyone who sneezes, except the master of the house.” (Hateful Things)
--“… I wondered what they could see in it and made a point of examining the flower.” (Flowering Trees)
--“The parrot does not belong to our country, but I like it very much. I am told that it imitates whatever people say.” (Birds)
--“Snow on the house of common people. This is especially regrettable when the moonlight shines down on it.” (Unsuitable Things)
--“‘No,’ I replied. ‘Since they dislike me so much, I’ve come to dislike them.’” (When the Chancellor had departed)
--“When a woman lives alone, her house should be extremely dilapidated, the mud wall should be falling to pieces …”
--“When a Court lady is on leave from the Palace … there is a lot of noisy conversation in the back rooms and the clatter of horses’ hoofs resounds outside. Yet she is in no danger of being criticized.”
--“Someone has torn up a letter and thrown it away. Picking up the pieces, one finds that many of them can be fitted together.” (Pleasing things)
--“‘There are times when the world so exasperates me that I feel I cannot go on living in it for another moment and I want to disappear for good. But the, if I happen to obtain some nice white paper, Michinoku paper, or white decorated paper, I decide that I can put up with things as they are a little longer.’”
--“I am delighted when a man visits me on a very windy night. Then I really feel he cares for me. … One bright, moonlit night a messenger thrust a note into the ante-room where I was staying. On a sheet of magnificent scarlet paper I read the words, ‘There is nothing.’ It was the moonlight that made this so delightful; I wonder whether I would have enjoyed it at all on a rainy night.”
--“I should like to live in a large, attractive house … But I suppose this dream of mine is rather absurd.”
She loved for her world. Or did she? What is hers, personally, her personality, and what her milieu?
SKETCHBOOK. “The construction of world-views has been attacked from various angles. A stock criticism is that world-views are inevitably impressionistic in character and that the philosopher, being intent on producing a comprehensive synthesis, tends to lump together questions which should be treated separately, to slur over distinctions which should be made, and to pay far too little attention to his arguments. … There is doubtless a middle way between setting out to construct an overall synthesis and trying to break up traditional problems into separate questions which can be solved successively once and for all. … All I claim is that it is a natural tendency to seek after an overall view or synthesis, and that there are cases of original thinkers, gifted with a power of imaginative vision, who are capable of making the enterprise worth while.” (Copplestone, Preface to the Second Edition, Schoperhauer)
STRUCTURE. Focus on one passage. At least organize in the form of an unpacking of one passage.
TATTLING. Tattling on the inelegance, or boorishness, effrontery, ignorance, … as a pretext to an elegant observation of it by someone else.
TERMS OF CONNOISSEURSHIP. Elegance = erudition = wit
THE TASO DIARY. Other Japanese works similar to the Pillow Book. I start and quickly conclude it’s nothing; but I proceed and, before I know it, I find myself quite engaged.
--“The sliding screen in the back of the hall”
--“A preacher ought to be good looking.”
--“It is so stiflingly hot”
--“Yesterday, after some time had passed and I had grown accustomed to Court service …”
--“It is getting so dark that I can scarcely go on writing; and my brush is all worn out. Yet I should like to add a few things before I end”
UNSERIOUSNESS. Shonagon’s heroic banishment of the serious. What today provides more opportunities for banality than the confession, the memoir, the diary, the evacuation of the self? Instead of revelation, confrontation, drama, … Shonagon makes lists. Inventories.
She excludes all direct treatment of serious topics. The persona she creates is worldly, conventional and self-satisfied. Passion, longing, dissent, suffering, adventure, heroism--the elements of most literature--are almost completely absent. At most, some of them appear incidentally as notes of distantly remembered or second-hand emotional color, highlighting a serene tableau. Characters make a vivid appearance, and are never heard of again. No one (least of all Shonagon) grows or even changes.
Shonagon challenges one to make lists, but not of priorities. She is not evaluating the importance of things, but the distinct pleasure or displeasure they cause. Making no claims about the state of anything, Shonagon sticks to reporting her responses. Radical empiricist. Anti-metaphysical.
Her silence regarding all the historically significant events of her time. You wouldn’t know that her father had been Japan’s ruler for years. It was a time of violent feuding, epidemics (her cousin, Murasaki’s, husband died of small pox). Shonagon doesn’t even bother to mention any of the significant milestones of court life: no births, deaths, marriages, promotions, demotions, deals. Not a word about the fires which destroyed the palace every couple of years. It’s not that she was concerned only with the court, but she was only concerned with a very small part of the court, and of only a very small part of herself. Think of the freedom, the boldness, with which she disappoints the gossip’s expectations. (Procopious, Saint-Simon)
VARIETY (in topics, in length of treatment) disorients.
WESTERN VERSIONS. In 1997 my least favorite moviemaker, Peter Greenaway, attacked my most favorite book. His Pillow Book was not a travesty because it has nothing to do with Shonagon’s book. Greenaway doesn’t want to do anything but make the same movie over and over again. The same fanatics with obsessive tasks, the same almost-but-not-quite visuals, the same annoying music, the same dead lover’s violated corpse. It was fun to hear Shonagon’s own, original words, here and there. It was exasperating to hear lines that would have made her faint with embarrassment-- “And the pen resembles that instrument which always knows what to do.” This from a woman who giggled at the sight of people eating as indecent. Greenaway’s Shonagon is an arch, fussbudget aesthete--hence precursor to Peter Greenaway. In short, Gramatology plus The Playgirl Videoguide to Tokyo, joining Paul Schrader’s Mishima in the pantheon misconceived barbarian softcore homoerotic baloney.
Edmund White’s best book, Forgetting Elena, is after Shonagon.
END. Wallace Stevens: “Description completing thought”
Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is the cemetery of nobilities.”
Sei Shonagon: “It is getting so dark that I can scarcely go on writing; and my brush is all worn out. Yet I should like to add a few things before I end”